His name was Fenton Powers, and my first impression of him was that he was insane.
I was a newly minted middle schooler in suburban New York, reveling in the bigness of not only changing classrooms after an actual bell rang but, for my Spanish class, actually changing buildings. Anything could happen in those 40 paces between doors! It was the great outdoors! There could be bears! Or a pretty eighth-grade girl could notice me!
Nothing that exciting ever happened. It was suburban New York, after all, and I was, well, me, not exactly the stuff of pretty eighth-grade girls’ dreams. I was, however, the first person to walk into Mr. Powers’ classroom that first day of school, followed closely by two friends. I assure you my promptness had nothing to do with any attempt to impress the teacher or because of any commitment to academic excellence. I guess I simply walked fast.
The moment I entered the classroom, this strange man with close-cropped grayish hair, an equally close-cropped, well-kept graying beard and intense, wide blue eyes that could have been confused for those belonging to someone seriously hopped up on meth started yelling unfamiliar words at me.
I had heard about speaking in tongues but had never seen it before. Perhaps this was that.
He paused. My friends and I looked at each other and then back at him. His wide eyes bore holes through us. And then he started in again, speaking in tongues.
We laughed. He yelled. We laughed. He yelled.
But the yelling was different. It was becoming familiar yelling. Whatever he was saying, it was the same thing each time.
The classroom began to fill up and we took our seats as his attention turned to other victims. The bell rang. He closed the door. We stared at him in silence. He stood there, panting slightly from the pre-class exertion. Something big was about to happen. And frankly, I was scared to death.
Three years later, I left Mr. Powers’ classroom for the last time. I still thought he was slightly insane, but he was no longer speaking in tongues. He was teaching me Spanish, and he had done a great job. All he had been asking us that first day was our names. “Como se llama?”
For a month, Mr. Powers had refused to speak a word of English. If we tried to do so, he would stamp a polished black shoe down and pointedly say, “En Espanol!”
Slowly, tentatively, we learned to speak Spanish.
I would go on to take Spanish in high school, then again during my senior year in college. I never was great at it, but I was good. I didn’t realize I was good until my wife and I celebrated our 10th anniversary in Costa Rica. We were in a taxi on the way from the airport to our hotel, and the cab driver asked us a question in Spanish: Where were we from? I understood him! Not only that, but suddenly Spanish words were coming out of my mouth. And they were mostly correct! The entire 15-minute drive, the cab driver and I spoke Spanish, while my wife looked on duly impressed by her man’s linguistic prowess.
Today, I spoke Spanish again. There is a girl staying at our hospital from Guatemala. She had a halo device attached to her head in late November in preparation for a more extensive surgery in January to fix her scoliosis. She and her mom will be with us for Christmas, so I am working on a story about what it’s like to be so far from home for the holidays and what our hospital is doing to help make it a little less sad.
I sat down this morning with them. Thankfully, I was joined by our respiratory therapy manager, who is a native of Colombia and a Spanish-speaker on par with Mr. Powers. I asked them questions in Spanish. They answered in Spanish. I would have failed miserably without my trusty translator, but there were lots of things I was able to say correctly and lots of things they said back that I actually understood. When I would attempt to wuss out and say something in English, there was Mr. Powers on my shoulder screaming, “En Espanol, Juan! En Espanol!”
I started thinking on my drive home about how small the world really is. I’m not sure what Mr. Powers is up to these days or if he’s even alive. I’ll be looking into that. But he had taught me something in New York that I was using in St. Louis with a girl and her mother from Guatemala. And, more poignantly, there were so many similarities between this girl and my own 11-year-old son.
She loves Harry Potter. My wife, son and I have been reading the series out loud since the beginning of the pandemic and are on the final book. It has been a great escape from the sameness of quarantine and the scariness of COVID. He loves all things Harry Potter now.
She loves to play video games, particularly Minecraft. As I am writing this, my son is in the other room talking to himself as he plays Minecraft because he has, much to his father’s dismay, entered into the world of uploading videos to YouTube of himself playing video games.
She wants to be a vet when she grows up. My son has an intense love of caring for animals and would like to be a vet or a zoologist, though he is unsure if he could really do either because he is so deeply affected by creatures in distress.
So many things this girl said about her life and likes are things that my son, raised thousands of miles away in a completely different culture underpinned by a totally different language, could relate to. The two of them, I thought as I drove home, would be fast friends.
Well, maybe. Mr. Powers would have to teach my little guy some Spanish first.